Uproot the manioc [cussava] and clear the land.
The worst part about deciding to enter, or at least look into, a religious tradition that is outside of your frame of reference is that you don’t really know where to begin. When it comes to pagan religions, new practitioners have it easy. There are forums and networks online that you can find, as well as books in local libraries with mythology aplenty. There are eBooks and Amazon for all of those resource references, but when you’re looking into a religion that’s been kept in the dark recesses for almost the entirety of its existence, things are much more difficult. What are good books to read? What are good blogs to read? Where can you find the information you’re looking into? Where do you look? How do you know what you’ve found is a diamond or a piece of coal?
In my research, I was incredibly lucky that I stumbled upon a few bloggers who practiced voodoo. I was able to pump their brains for information and one of them (linked below) had a good resource list ready for me to squee over. However, there are a lot of other people out there who are not so lucky. I honestly think that I was meant for this because of how lucky I was in finding bloggers who practice and blogged about it. It really was no time at all before I found resources and a little net of people that I could talk to, if needed. Again, though, I know that I’m one in a million here and that, as someone who has been around this Internet for a while, I’ve been able to do things that other neophytes aren’t capable of doing. They don’t have that sort of safety net because they don’t know where to look or no one who has the experience has found them yet.
While it’s possible to approach a lwa and hope for the best, I don’t recommend this without knowing what you can get into. The lwa can be very much like little children at times with their wants and desires. If you don’t have the time, energy, and wherewithal to handle what it is that they need or want, then maybe this isn’t something for you. (I will write all about this later, I swear.) Besides, the lwa that you approach may not even be an actual lwa. You can pluck a name from lists or from Wiki, hoping that you’re making contact with the right one, but I honestly don’t think it is a wise choice to just go plundering into a religious practice because you want something so desperately. As much as you may think you are getting into something you can handle, I can assure that you are getting into something that you can’t.
I have spent many, many hours, crying at the base of Papa Legba’s altar because of all the things I have been forced into after becoming his servant – not because I don’t want to but because it is hard and painful and lonely – and those days are still not over. While the jokes and dick imagery in working for the Guédé is hilarious, they are just as intense as Papa Legba in their requests. While I do not work with any other lwa, except for a passing occasional with Gran Bwa, I can tell you that this is a very difficult, painful path. It is outside our frame of reference for many of us and there are some of us who will never join a sosyete for one reason or another. This is a religion and jumping into something because it looks cool is never recommended. While I’ll get into what you can expect from the lwa in future posts, let me just say this: Doing something because you think it will look cool on your religious resume is fucking stupid and you should stop looking into voodoo or vodou if that is your intent.
Now, about getting started, I’ve already told anyone who has been reading to look into the Haitian Revolution. In so looking, you will begin to pick up bits and pieces about the history of the island in and of itself. Learning about the Taíno natives, as well as the slaves who ran away, are all important aspects to this religion. It tells you what pieces are a part of the religious tradition today. It tells you where this began and why this began. In doing the research on the history of the island, specifically in looking into the revolution, you will begin to learn about the actual history of the island. As I said in that previous post, you will be able to get glimpses and glimmers from each voodoo or vodou related book you pick up, but it’s important to know more than the quick history lesson authors are willing to give you. It goes deeper than that because the island itself and the lives of those people, both prior to the revolution and after, are important aspects of this religion.
But in looking up the history of the island, you’ll get more than just a minor history lesson in what these people went through. In continuing through with your research to encompass the lives of these people after the revolution and through to the 20th century, you will begin to see how oppressed the people were and how it was this religion that gave them something to live for. When your daily lives are nothing more than toil, there’s little that will give you the gumption to continue on, but vodou made these people strong and willing to be put through a lot of shit. Also, in learning about the post-revolution era, you will see, not just the oppression, but the Westernized belief that this nation is a bunch of “backwards” people. In some cases, at least economically speaking, the country is backwards. But we based that belief off some mistaken idea that non-Christian, non-Jewish, and non-Islamic religions are “backwards.”
The thing is, at least in my household, there are days where I’m fed up with history and I want to know more about the religion, itself. There are days where I’ve read my history books and I’m done with facts because my brain is muddled with them. Then, then comes the moment of research about the religion itself and in those moments, it can be difficult to find accurate resources. As I said above, not everyone is lucky enough to have a blogging network or a forum network that is supportive of those religious choices that may seem questionable to outsiders. I guess, really, I’m just insanely lucky on this front.
There are three types of resources that a non-initiate can look to.
- The books on the religion, itself.
- The blogs of other vodou or voodoo practitioners.
- The Internet.
Now, the Internet is a fucking morass a lot of the time. The thing about having websites is that anyone can make one and pepper it with misinformation. They can do that knowingly or unknowingly because they misinterpreted or got their sources from yet another website that isn’t sourced accurately or because someone just made up some “facts.” Wikipedia is insanely guilty of this because anyone who is able to can edit their pages with information. While Wiki may be an interesting starting point in order to learn some names outside of Papa Legba and Bawon Samedi for the lwa, it is not an accurate source of information. In same vein, a lot of websites are not based off any legitimate information but off of Hollywood propaganda and made up realities. So, while most people will do their research on the Internet, I honestly do not recommend it with vodou or voodoo. However, I also understand that not everyone is actually able to get the books, so for them, I say: discernment.
This is a common term found in most pagan circles and while vodou/voodoo are not pagan in any context (no, they’re not), this terminology is just as important when trying to find good information on the ‘net. As Dver said on her landmark post on the subject, “It is important to discern between what a god might like, or do, or say, and what They actually do like, are doing, are saying.” While she’s talking, specifically, about polytheists, we can translate this particular sentence to include research and resources. “It is important to discern between an informational website of dubious nature and a website of properly sourced information.” So, my advice here is to look for sources. If you don’t find any, walk away. If you don’t like the sources they do provide, walk away. Entering a religious tradition with massive misinformation because you got click happy on Google is not okay.
What is okay? Discerning.
The one time I will tell you to throw this advice out the window is when you find a website associated with a sosyete. If you click on the link and you are taken to the main page, the name of the sosyete the website is affiliated will be there. And if you’re not sure about whether it is or is not a sosyete, look for key words like “mambo” and “houngan.” Now, obviously, there are a lot of different opinions out there as far as different sosyete. I have heard good things about the Sosyete du Marche. I have not heard a lot of good things about Mambo Racine, who is associated with the Roots Without End Society. In that regard, go back up to the commentary on discernment and use some as you peruse the websites. (Personally, I like using the Gade Nou Leve Society website for information purposes.)
Bloggers have only been a very recent addition to the vodou and voodoo universes. It’s been only in recent years that anyone with a hint of vodou or voodoo flavoring, much less actual houngan or mambo having blogs and websites. Prior to this, vodou and voodoo were something you did quietly or with a sosyete only. But, with the advent of the Internet, everyone out there can make a blog. And in same vein, there are some bloggers out there who are initiated and non-initiated. You can do searches for blogs with various keywords to find them (vodou, voodoo, houngan, mambo) and see what pops up.
As I said, I was lucky in that I had found someone who knew a thing or three about voodoo when I first began and I was able to network. I’ve pulled back on the blogs that I read to include only one or two Vodouisants and I occasionally peruse others. This is only because I am more Kemetic, outside of certain parts of my practice, than I am a Voodooist and I’d like to keep my blog more associated with the Kemetic side of things than the voodoo side of things. On this one, you have to make up your own mind about things. Do you really care what others have to say on certain subjects? Do you really want to know what their practices are like, especially if you are unable to be initiated and they happen to be initiated into a sosyete? It comes down to personal preference here, but you should ask yourself these questions. Not simply because you may end up wanting something – becoming an initiated – by reading those experiences and maybe that’s just not viable.
How much information do you want to pull from bloggers and Internet resources, knowing that a good portion of it will be blocked from you because you are not an initiate?
And yes, that is a lot of the case. One of the reasons I’m even remotely mentioning or linking to Mambo Racine’s website for the society she is with is because there are bits and pieces in there for the non-initiated. This is incredibly rare. Most websites and, to an extent, bloggers will not tell you about certain parts because it is an initiate tradition. There are things that, as an initiate, you are not able to share with anyone – Met Tet, kanzo, etc. It’s similar, I guess, to Wicca in that regard. Some parts are mysteries because you have to be a part of that group in order to get down with those mysteries. And if you are never, ever going to have a chance to become an initiate, do you really want to know? Besides, why bother prying into the secrets of a group of people if you aren’t going to join in? While I, personally, don’t need to know those things or particularly want to know those things, not everyone is like me.
So, it comes down to you asking yourself, is networking with other people worth it if I’m never going to go to a Fet and/or become initiated?
Now, most of my research comes from books. I am a book snob in a lot of ways, but I also prefer the tangibility of owning a book and being able to easily find the information I’m looking for. Some of the books that I am going to mention probably have free eBook versions out there, although I cannot comment on that. I do not have a Nook or Kindle and I refuse to get one. I like the physical nearness of my books (as I said, book snob). So the books I have as resources may or may not be available to people who have to keep this stuff hidden or do not have the financials to actually be able to go out and buy the books. (And if you do have the money but it must be hidden, I highly recommend buying a used hardcover edition and switching out the dust cover to something less inflammatory.)
A lot of the books I’ve used as research tools are anthropological in nature. I am a geek, of course, so that type of resource is invaluable to me. However, I think it’s invaluable to anyone who is looking into voodoo or vodou because it will show you the perspective of things back when these books were written and it will also give you an intimate glimpse. Some of these books are fairly old, but they’re still prevalent today. While we have books out there that will give you a basic rundown on how to get started, knowing how things were done and seen as far back as 50 years ago is still important today. You will notice the attitudes of so long ago being found continuously in today’s society as well. We may have come and made some strides, humanity, but we’re still at the point where a lot of people think that the religion of vodou is “backwards.”
Now, if you aren’t pulling from a bibliography, as I have, of other vodou practitioners, then you may not know exactly how to find adequate resources. I’m not going to bore you with anything right now because someone did this work for me. My friend, Sard, wrote a blog entry a while ago about how to find good academic resources. Before I link to it, let me just say that academic resources are important here because it’s only been in the last five years that anyone has even remotely begun to pay any attention to this religion outside of New Orleans tourists. So while there are books being published by mambo and hougan, the anthropological books are still important resources. So, to tell how you have a really good academic source (which can be used for e-d-u websites and books), read this, please.
Resources are important, especially for those of us who will never be initiated into a sosyete. Good resources are even more important because we don’t want misinformation and lies peppering our relationships with the lwa. Historical references are extremely important because you don’t want to steal from a religious tradition that is initiation bound and end up being an asshole. Excellent discernment skills are mandatory because you may end up getting screwed over in the end by a lwa who is willing to take advantage of your stupidity.
- Sosyete du Marche
- Gade Nou Leve Society
- Roots Without End Society
- The Book of Vodou by Leah Gordon
- Divine Horsement by Maya Deren
- Tell My Horse by Zora Neal Thurston
- The Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis
- Voodoo in Haiti by Alfred Metraux
* This is not all of the books that I would like to add to this list, but I think a separate page, in future, regarding my bibliography will appear with commentary on the books I’m recommending and why.